Adventure awaits – Reflections on Hobbits, Home, and Veterinary Volunteerism

It’s a dangerous business Frodo, going out of your door… You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. – Bilbo Baggins

This morning as I sip a foul cup that passes for coffee, I realize it has been just over a year since we stepped off the hamster wheel and made some big changes in our lives. We have just finished a 5-week volunteer gig in the Caribbean and in a few days will swap our swimsuits for ski gear as we head home to Rossland, BC the most perfect place to spend Christmas. While I would like to think my gypsy heart would be happy to wander indefinitely, it knows that home is there, waiting quietly for my return. A little town, nestled in the mountains of BC and where my mind goes when I hear the word home. How lucky I am to have a home and to have it waiting patiently for me at the end of each journey.

Each time I return I am greeted by friends and acquaintances that make me feel like a minor celebrity and I realize the decision to step off the hamster wheel early is often misunderstood.  I try not to cringe as I hear the question “how are you enjoying your retirement?” I really need to stop explaining that we are not retired, just making a change in our career and lifestyle goals because, why does it matter?  To walk away from financial success in order to do more of the things I love, to give back in some small way and to explore new career options has been one of the best decisions of my life but it is not easy for everyone to understand. To be honest, learning how to live more simply and on less is a challenge and one I am still figuring out. We all think we need just a little more and we all spend to the limit (or beyond) our income. It isn’t an easy pattern to “unlearn”.

While home calls, waiting to wrap me in the warmth of its familiar embrace, the road continues to beckon, luring me with the thrill of the unknown. Since 2017 I have had the good fortune to spend approximately 20 weeks working as a volunteer vet on projects in 5 different countries and new opportunities await in 2019. I would be lying to say there have not been challenges. Challenging conditions, bureaucratic red tape, exhausting flights, and difficult people. Once hooked, working as a volunteer vet becomes like an addiction. Despite the dirt, the poverty, the overwhelmingly sad cases, I am a junkie waiting for my next fix, my next project.

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This year, I am looking at veterinary volunteering with new eyes and with the hope of making international volunteer work more accessible to other veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Despite the personal rewards and experience gained, the cost of travel and finding time to volunteer is a huge deterrent for many veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Previous blogs have described the benefits of volunteer work (I am Published, Cool beans! and For the Love of Dog) as well as what makes for a great volunteer experience (Try the Goat) but what about the project itself? How do potential veterinarians and veterinary technicians choose from among the many projects in need of their expertise? How can you be sure you are making a difference and also have a fun, positive experience? The answer to this question is complex but can be broken down into two parts. First, taking an honest look at the reasons you want to go on a volunteer trip and second considering the project, its leadership, and goals.

If you have never dipped your toe in the world of veterinary volunteerism, it is difficult to know what to expect and how you will react to challenging conditions. Picture yourself working in a hot, dirty, smell environment with cockroaches in the dog food bin. Consider your ability to practice veterinary medicine with limited tools and supplies. Will you laugh with delight to find drugs and suture only 2 years out of date instead of 6? How do you feel making a treatment decision using only a stethoscope and thermometer as your diagnostic tools? Are you adaptable to using unfamiliar drugs (what has been donated), unfamiliar anesthesia (what is available) and unfamiliar suture (always check its strength before using)? Finally, how will you react to the overwhelming need and neglect (by our Western standards) of so many of the animals in these countries? Can you work within the local cultural context and leave your judgment at home? My blog “Try the Goat” is an attempt to give volunteers some tips on having a great experience but as also a reminder that you need to be honest with yourself and decide if international work is right for you. If you need life’s little luxuries to be happy or if what you really need is a holiday, you may end up disappointed. If you see the world in black and white and cannot practice medicine without structure, familiarity and the organizational hierarchy of modern veterinary hospital, you may find this type of work stressful and anxiety-inducing. Finally, if seeing emaciated, neglected animals, and experiencing different cultural values associated with pet ownership is going to leave you either deeply enraged or deeply depressed, you may want to rethink your participation in an international veterinary project.

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Rob, a small animal vet, stepping outside his comfort zone and performing a Cesarean on a sheep. Large animal medicine, just like riding a bike…

If after reading this you are still excited about offering your skills to a volunteer project, the next step is choosing a great project to join. Do a google search of “veterinary volunteer projects” and you will be overwhelmed with options. Start by narrowing the search to a certain region or part of the world, talk to colleagues who have volunteered and finally consider these key considerations when evaluating your participation in a specific project.

1. Does the project has a clear mission and clearly defined goals (ideally in writing) that guide the decisions of both the project leaders and the volunteers. Read these goals and make sure your ethics align with those of the project leaders. For example, on some projects, sick animals will not be treated unless the owner agrees to sterilization. Are there clear medical protocols and are expectations for volunteers clearly communicated? Clearly defined goals provide a uniform and consistent message to the local community and provide the most efficient and productive use of volunteers energy, resources and time.

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Elaine is pretty happy to effectively sterilize 9 animals with just one surgery.  Meeting project goals and preventing 8 more puppies to hit the street.

2. Is there evidence of accountability? Nonprofit organizations, just like small businesses, need to be accountable to their volunteers and donors. Can the project document how donations are used? Do the organizers make efforts to track and evaluate the impact of the project on the local community and whether it is meeting its goals? Is the board willing to critically evaluate its’ impact and implement changes when it starts to veer off track? This can be a difficult thing for volunteers to evaluate but it worth your consideration. Full disclosure, when I began volunteering, I did not consider accountability. I wanted to escape, travel and experience veterinary medicine in a foreign country. These projects can be costly, you are likely using up your holiday time and you may also be giving up income or time with family in order to participate. With so many organizations looking for volunteers, consider your options and choose wisely.

3. Does the volunteer project respect the local culture and look for ways to become sustainable without outside support? This my friends is a lofty goal and I realize I am naive to expect long-term sustainability without foreign support, but it excites me when I see local community members supporting the project, being employed or trained by project leaders and ultimately becoming advocates for the project within their community.  Consider if there is an education component to the project (is there a school program), are there local supporters who help with the logistics and organization of the project and do they work alongside the foreign volunteers and project leaders to deliver education, sterilization, and medical care? Is there a spirit of collaboration with the local animal care community or are local organizations displaced and disrespected?

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4. Finally, is the project a fun, collaborative and positive experience for volunteers? Do volunteers feel respected, comfortable to ask questions and voice concerns without fear of being judged or shut down? Does leadership support a collaborative approach and foster an environment of improvement and learning? Do volunteers feel appreciated and supported? Are all volunteers, regardless of their experience, age or role on the project treated consistently with equal respect and perks? After leading a team for 20 years, I can confidently say, it is lonely at the top. Your team doesn’t care about your needs or how hard you work and nor should they. You took on this role and while it isn’t easy to stay positive and not let your personal biases influence your behavior and actions, at the end of the day, it is your responsibility. Before signing on to a project, talk to past volunteers about their experience, and be sure the time and money you spend in order to offer your skills we are rewarded with appreciation and respect.

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After 5 months of working as a veterinary volunteer I am fully aware that I have the easiest job, just show up and work hard. I appreciate the countless hours of work that goes into organizing these projects. From bringing together leaders and volunteers with different backgrounds and personalities, to engaging the support of the local community. From fundraising and bringing the required drugs and supplies across international borders to staying focused and positive in the face of daily roadblocks that can be overwhelming. It requires a phenomenal work ethic, passion, and perseverance that often goes unrecognized and sometimes unappreciated.  I tip my hat to all of you, the leaders with whom I have had the privilege of volunteering over the past 2 years.

So after all this thoughtful advice, my final comment is simple. Know yourself, do your homework and then stop overthinking it. Put on your pack, tuck in some lembas bread and open the door of your safe little hobbit hole. Step outside by placing one foot in front of the other as you walk through the Shire and into the great beyond. Adventure awaits, not for the strong or the brave, but for those with an open mind and a curious heart.

Home is behind, the world ahead, And there are many paths to tread through shadows to the edge of night, Until the stars are all alight. Then world behind and home ahead, We’ll wander back and home to bed. Mist and twilight, cloud and shade, Away shall fade! Away shall fade! – J.R. Tolkien

On the road again: Random ramblings of a volunteer veterinarian.

So here’s the thing; it is really flipping hot here. Hot and humid. Rivers of sweat sliding off my face and traveling down my body on a journey to some unknown ocean, hot. Why isn’t there a call for volunteer vets in Iceland?

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Time for a tasty smoothy in Hillsborough Carriacou

So here’s the other thing; apparently there are about 3000 different species of mosquitos worldwide and scientific studies (the number of bites counted in one square inch of my exposed ankles) prove that all 3000 species are to be found in Carriacou.

So here’s the final thing; despite the heat and the mosquitos, it is good to be back volunteering. We arrived in Carriacou, a small island off the coast of Grenada about a week ago. Rob and I spent about 7 weeks here in April and May of 2018 (see Where the Heck is Carriacou) and are back for another 6 weeks working with this special project.  When we were here in the spring, it was very dry and water on the island was scarce. Livestock, plants, and people were feeling the effects of low rainfall and water shortage. Now we are catching the end of the hurricane (rainy) season and the island is lush, green and cisterns are full.

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Eye enucleation surgery
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Puppy recovering from surgery

We have been very busy since our arrival on the island, treating the usual array of skin diseases and parasites. Performing sterilization surgeries and health checks as well as 3 eye enucleations. We have had a number of poisoning cases (a common occurrence on the island), tick fever cases and the frustrating but ever-present cases of neglect or abuse. So many of the problems we see arise from lack of education and pet overpopulation. We are working to improve the condition of the animals and in turn the health of both the wildlife and humans who are impacted by diseases in our domestic pets. Some days are difficult and it can be too easy to judge the actions of others based on our own cultural mores.  The goal of traveling and working with an open mind can be easily forgotten and my personal rule of “seeking first to understand” tossed aside.

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Dog suffering from anemia most likely due to tick fever and malnutrition

Cultural relativism is the idea that a person’s beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person’s own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another cultures’ mores, values. Right and wrong are culture-specific and the ability to understand a culture on its own terms rather than using the standards of your own culture can be very beneficial when doing this kind of work. Sorta like what your mom always said, “don’t judge others until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”.

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Severely emaciated dog, this photo does not really show how thin this dog was. She was tied up for “punishment” without food or water

This is a very simplified explanation of cultural relativism, a concept which is actually a very complex. Working and living in Carriacou however, brings this concept to mind daily as I interact with the friendly kayaks (what people from Carriacou call themselves), the expat population who now call Carriacou home, the tourists visiting the island and the other volunteers. I am hardly the person to get into a philosophical debate about this topic but I will say it can be hard to reconcile my own personal beliefs on animal welfare and sustainable veterinary volunteerism with that of the expat and tourist population. I feel it is important that foreign volunteers remember this is not their home and not their culture. Respect for the local people and their way of life is imperative to the success of the project. We are here to support the veterinary needs of the island dogs and cats based on what is culturally relevant for Carriacou.  This may look quite different than how we care for our own dogs and cats at home but without sensitivity and respect for cultural differences, the project will be doomed from the start. How do you react when someone treats you in either a patronizing way or simply tells you your ideas have no merit and are wrong? For most of us, this attitude ends the conversation and becomes a huge roadblock to progress and change. 

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Community outreach to provide free flea, tick and deworming treatments to local dogs

Let me give you an example. You live in Canada, or the USA or the UK or perhaps France (you get the idea, you are from a culture of privilege). You travel to a little island in the Caribbean (or Malaysia, or Malawi) for a much needed holiday and a chance to see a new part of the world. You get off the plane, it is hot, muggy and you are immediately hit with new sounds, smells and find yourself in a world remarkably different than where you came from. There is a period of adjustment and some culture shock, which you may or may not have anticipated. As you walk to dinner at a fine restaurant the guidebook recommended, you pass several “street” dogs who are in various states of poor health. Thin to the point of emaciated, perhaps limping, perhaps they look mangy. But the dogs seem so sweet and so friendly and as you eat your expensive meal (by local standards) you think about those hungry dogs. You want to help but how? You give one a pet as you leave the restaurant and the poor thing follows you back to your hotel. He is waiting outside the next morning and greets you with hopeful eyes. You save a little of your breakfast and bring it home for him and by the end of your holiday, you’ve fallen in love and want to take him back to Canada, or the USA, or the UK or perhaps France.

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Yachts anchored off Carriacou

So what’s the big deal and is there anything wrong with this scenario? On one hand, it happens all the time and for that individual dog, should you manage to work out the paperwork and red tape to adopt the sweet creature and give it a life of luxury, where is the harm? I am not saying this is wrong, I am just suggesting that people need to look at the bigger picture. That dog most likely had an owner and it is quite possible the owner does love their dog but does not have the financial resources or knowledge to provide better care. Most likely in this culture dogs are not kept in fenced yards and wander and find food where they can. If you had not fed him, he probably would have gone home. When you “rescue” one dog you need to realize it will be quickly replaced by another who will soon be leading the same life as the animal you rescued. While you can feel good about what you did and you can take comfort knowing that you made a difference for one animal, don’t fool yourself into thinking this is really making a difference to the local dog population. In fact, you may have damaged the relationship between the “locals” and the veterinary volunteers working in that country. Your skin is the same color as theirs, you came and basically stole a dog. How will this action be perceived? Perhaps the local population will doubt the intentions of the veterinary project working in that community? Your actions may contribute to a feeling of distrust between the local people and the volunteers. “They say they are here to help us and our animals but how can we trust them if they allow our dogs to be stolen?” Obviously, I am making a point here and trying to give an example of how our actions, however well-intentioned, may actually create more harm than good. Making a difference is hard work. It is complicated. It means being culturally sensitive, carefully considering the consequences of your actions and ideally, being in it for the long haul. Perhaps, most importantly, it means leaving your judgment and moral superiority at home.

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I wonder if I am becoming jaded because I now cringe whenever I hear or see this quote “Saving one animal will not change the world, but the world will change for that one animal”. I understand the sentiment and agree that it is better to do something than to stand by and do nothing but I also think we need to explore the ramifications of our actions and be sure we are basing them on not only what is best for ONE animal, but also what is best for the entire POPULATION. Remaining idealistic is hard when faced with so much suffering. If I can be honest with you, I struggle to know if our volunteerism over the last few years is just a self-centered quest for meaning or if it actually makes a difference. But then, on a good day, I remind myself and truly believe that it is the small acts of kindness that accumulate and end up making the world a better place. Perhaps I just have too much time for self-reflection?

When in doubt default to kindness.

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